Creative

I Have Some Feedback About Your Feedback

Got some feedback on my blog from another web professional. Here it is:

“No need to publish this comment, but damn man… For a UX blog, work on your colors. It’s extremely difficult to read anything, you need more contrast.”

I don’t find this to be particularly offensive and I am not angry. In my 17 years of making websites, I have certainly heard worse. But after reading this, I started to recall when I was younger and I would sometimes send blunt feedback with a negative overtone. It was as though my superior intellect would illuminate their dim minds. I thought I was just being honest, but when you show a lack or respect to the wrong person or enough people, you might find no one listens to you or worse. 

A long time ago, my creative director at the time pulled me aside and told me to just talk to people, because emails live forever and can be easily misinterpreted. I wish that was the last time I needed to hear that.

Years later, I was doing freelance at a big agency for a big client and regularly working onsite until 2am. Close to burn out, I sent an email to the project manager telling him I wasn’t coming in that day, along with a colorful diatribe about what I felt was going wrong with the project. This is someone I would go to lunch with regularly. I thought I had a certain level of trust with him. I was wrong. He shared that email with a group of other people at the agency. The next day, I started hearing back from my wife about what I had written. She was friends with a coordinator at the agency who was not even working on the project. I had already begun planning my exit, as I had grown to seriously dislike that agency and that client. Thanks to my own carelessness, however, my exit was expedited. The point is, after you hit send, your words will have a life of their own. So you better be prepared to defend them. That’s easier to do when the words are constructive.

So let’s go back to our feedback and break it down. One caveat: I figured out how to darken the text on this WordPress theme. Anyway, the feedback says, “It’s extremely difficult to read anything.” Since the feedback wasn’t more specific, I have no choice but to make assumptions about the meaning. So in this case, I will take that to mean they had a difficult time reading the body copy because it was gray text on white. I have seen some monitors that do not show gray very well, so if that is what they meant, it’s legitimate feedback. The headline is large black text on white, so the user must be able to read that just fine. I guess?

“For a UX blog, work on your colors.” Again, I will take that to mean that the body copy needs to be darker. But telling me to work on my colors leads me to believe they think that all of my colors are bad. Which tells me they exaggerate instead of providing specific, constructive feedback.

Yes, a lot of it is politics, but I’ve learned the hard way that you need to be professional, if not even nice, when addressing someone. Starting off with “but damn man” will put most individuals on the defensive. The words become like an off switch. And when you turn people off, you may as well be talking to a wall.

I recognize it when other people do it. They tell me they like my shoes, or compliment me in some other way. It’s a polite way to get someone to listen to you, albeit a trick of human protocol. Always start off with something nice, or at the very least, inoffensive. To some people, it comes naturally. To others like myself, however, it takes conscious effort. But I have found that, almost without fail, it is the best way to open someone up to a difficult conversation they might otherwise shut down.

In the end, everything that is said is just one person’s opinion. I hear opinions all day at work, but I pay more attention to the ones that are presented respectfully and constructively. So to the person who decided to give me some UX feedback on a previous post, are you right? Probably. The font needed to be a little darker. I spent some time figuring out how to customize this theme. So thank you for the advice.

But does this type of feedback make you look like a jerk? Yes. This is a clear example of how not to approach another professional. There are better ways to get your point across. Take my advice and learn from my mistakes. There is a better approach. 

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Land of Confusion

confused

 

Have you ever been told your design is confusing? Personally, I hear that from time to time. Someone reviews your work, and since they didn’t understand it for whatever reason, they think no other human could possibly understand it. It’s imprecise feedback, but they are entitled to their own opinion, and opinions aren’t wrong. Or are they? To begin, it’s more judgment than opinion. I often wonder what the process is for judging design when coming from someone who’s never designed an experience. Regardless of whom it’s coming from, design is easily misjudged. Sadly, it leads to misdirection, poorly designed experiences and, at best, wasted time. You have to know what the situation is before easing the problem. The first step is to understand what the word “confusion” means.

As a word, “confusion” seems to stand in for a lot of other issues. For me, though, I see confusion on a scale of difficulty in cognition ranging from minor hesitation to a fully broken experience. Walking into a closed door because you thought it was open would be confusion. Jiggling the handle because you don’t know if the door is locked is a lack of clarity. Fixing an unclear experience can be as easy as changing a word in a label. Fixing a confusing experience could have you scrapping your design altogether. Still, you’ll hear the word as a catch-all for any friction in the user experience. Your work could very well be confusing, but it could also be a matter of perspective.

How is the critic viewing your work? More than once, I have had someone look over my shoulder at a design and tell me what’s not working. Being told a button is too small from someone standing six feet away from my screen is undoubtedly an incorrect judgment. I once had a VP who refused to view any mobile design unless it was on a mobile device. Seems obvious, but I have been in meetings where mobile designs were being judged while projected on a wall at 20X their actual size.

Now consider the difference between the process of design versus an actual experience. In the design process, we sometimes look at printouts of different screens that are tacked up on the wall. This is not the user experience. It’s a replica, an approximation of what the user will experience. Some things are lost in translation. Compare an architectural drawing to what it’s like walking though a real structure. The user experience is nothing short of what the user is doing while interacting with your actual site or application. We have certain tools to create a vision. We use static mocks, wireframes, and prototypes. Occasionally with these tools, the context and continuity are misread. That confusion is a result of the inherit inadequacies of the tools we use.

I have seen people perplexed by how to navigate a four-way stop. Does that mean a four-way stop is confusing? More likely, the confusion is the result of a distracted driver, one that isn’t in the mindset to navigate it properly. A user can be in the wrong mindset, as can the person judging the experience. But when designing, you have to assume some level of focus from the user. You cannot account for when they are off in dreamland. Designers attempt to remove as much friction from an experience as possible, but nothing is truly effortless. A user has a task. They are attempting to accomplish that task. I have been told a design was questionable because it took a couple seconds for someone to find the thing they wanted to click on. In this case, it was a tertiary action, something most would do infrequently. To ensure that action would have more immediate discoverability, it would have to compete with the primary action that most used frequently. What’s funny is, they complained about a task they were still able to complete in a reasonable amount of time.

The hardest issues to deal with are cognitive biases. This is the curve-ball judgment I fear the most. A cognitive bias can easily lead to an error in judgment based on one’s own perception. To illustrate a bias of my own, I can tell you about the video of the twirling models that plays automatically when a customer clicks a garment on Myhabit.com. Having been a Flash animator in the advertising industry, I was drawing on an experience that proved to be bad for the user. Principally, it was having unexpected movement on a page when the user first landed on it. On Myhabit.com, I argued against having video automatically play. I thought it should be user-initiated, allowing them to acclimate to the page layout first. The counter argument was that the video was a key differentiator, and that we should lead with a “delighter” feature. But based on my heuristic, it wasn’t going to do well. Fortunately, we agreed to test it with a large internal audience. We lead with the auto play video and waited for negative feedback. No one voiced a concern. Then we released the product and waited again for negative feedback. Nothing. I was happy we tested it first, and happy I was proven wrong, because I learned a very tricky lesson about how your own experiences can mislead you. My perception of a confusing experience was proven false. Unless all factors are exactly the same, you cannot predict with a high level of certainty what will be successful. Your biases may lead you in the right direction, but can just as easily distort rational thinking. The process for good judgment should lead us away from our own biases. Getting past them requires listening to other people’s concerns, seriously questioning yourself and, above all, user testing.

The perception of a confusing experience needs to be dissected. There may be a legitimate concern. Take it seriously, but question it. Often, it’s less of an issue than what someone believes. As a designer, you control how a design is viewed and how it is communicated. If you take the time to appropriately frame the experience with the right amount of context, there are a lot of problems you can avoid. For the issues that communication can’t handle, do user testing. Get a broader perspective, and base your decisions on broad and deep information. Be aware that the one person you prove wrong may be yourself.

Requiem for a Metaphor

We use metaphors when what we have to explain may not be obvious. Given the complex nature of software, metaphors are used regularly. Every time you jump on your computer you are looking at different metaphors which come in the form of the icon. If you click on a folder icon, it’s not taking you to a folder; it’s taking you to a set of information. The folder icon is a metaphor for the organization of your documents. It is both a graphic element and a tool of information architecture used for better understanding. But, there is a problem sneaking up on us. Most of our metaphors are based in analog.

Many things no longer need to look like what they do. A television used to need a giant tube, which dictated its size and shape. Over time it got flatter. And then a lot flatter. Now a television has become a slim black box with a screen. Telephones have had a similar evolution. Once they were large devices that had a distinct look that was dictated by its analog nature. Now they’ve changed.

The convergence of devices on your average smart phone breaks metaphors like never before. It’s a phone, but looks nothing like the phones we grew up with. It’s a camera, but looks nothing like the cameras we grew up with. It runs applications, but looks nothing like the computer you grew up with. Given the newer technologies in development, your phone will soon become your wallet too. And for all it does, what does it look like? A slim black box with a screen. With this evolution we have lost inherit visual cues that analog gave us. This effects how we communicate in the digital space.

We are comfortable with using icons as a base metaphor for information on Web sites and operating systems. Look at the Windows OS. Your information and documents are subdivided into folders. But, if you look at how documents are increasingly digital, at one point you realize the metaphor of a folder may no longer be a logical reference.

If there are no paper documents, then there is no need for folders to place them in. At some point in the future, this will happen. With smart phones and digital readers, it may not be as far off as you think. The folder metaphor as we now know it will become an antiquated reference to how we used to do things.

The number of cell phone subscriptions will hit 5 billion this year. I would also argue the average icon used to represent a phone is outdated. If you do a Google search on phone icons you will see an overwhelmingly large number of images that have little to do with your average phone experience.

Holding on to these analog references makes little sense. Sometimes it’s the language that doesn’t add up. Tapes and VCRs have a rewind button, but so does you’re DVD player and DVR. It was called rewind because you were physically winding tape back to the first reel. The term fast forward is still relevant, but we should ditch rewind and call it fast back. Other analog references are less innocuous.

The accepted QWERTY keyboard layout is rooted in analog. It’s been arguably shown that other keyboard layouts are more efficient. But with the invention of the keyboard, they wanted to create something that was familiar and easy for those using mechanical typewriters. Now we’re stuck with it.

I am certainly not being nostalgic. I don’t want to be stuck with the old. I don’t want to cater to analog. I say good riddance, but it forces new questions to be asked. Abstraction is the removal of details. Digital has hastened the abstraction of these objects we create for ourselves. Fundamentally, it becomes a communication challenge. I see it as an opportunity for new language and new metaphors, but digital metaphors.

Ideas Are Meaningless

A good idea can come from anywhere. People say it all the time because it is true. But, an idea by itself is utterly worthless without someone who knows how to take that idea from dream to reality.

Ever watch the television show House? Each week, Dr. House solves the latest medical mystery though an obscure idea that seems to approach him from anywhere or anyone. The “a-ha” moment that reveals itself does nothing more than point the way. It takes the doctor’s creative genius to recognize the idea when he sees it. And it takes his experience to make the idea a reality and actually solve the problem. Understanding the value of an idea is the first part of good creative direction. The second part is having the know-how to make it a reality. We are surrounded by ideas all the time. Recognizing value in a single thought floating in a sea of ideas takes not only creative intelligence, but experience.

Benjamin Franklin said, “At twenty years of age, the will reigns; at thirty, the wit; and at forty, the judgment.” As a young designer, I came about good ideas by spawning hundreds of bad ideas. I would push myself like I was at the gym. Just 4 more ideas, just 3 more ideas, 2 more, okay last ooonnne. Done.  Now in my thirties, I feel like good ideas happen more quickly. By comparison, they are certainly more clever. The difference is, I now see ideas through the scope of my experiences.

We see a lot of good ideas with poor execution on the internet. Actually, some studies have shown that people watching YouTube are turned off by high production value. I don’t know. Maybe free content needs to look like it’s free. I always ask, “could it be better?” How would you improve it? How could you make it more meaningful? In looking back at my blog, it’s no big surprise to me why some entries do better than others. It’s not only the quality of the idea, but the quality of the execution that counts.

Crowd sourcing uses submissions from an online community to solve a particular problem. This is probably the most literal interpretation of how a good idea comes from anywhere. The Pepsi Refresh project is one of the most popular expressions of crowd sourcing. This project not only outsources the generation of the idea, but the judgment of the idea too, through online voting. I feel like crowd sourcing is an interesting way to generate ideas. I am always willing to listen to anyone, but it’s the judgment aspect that I have trouble with. In the end, I feel like average judgment equals average success.

A lot of CEOs make unpopular decisions, only to become wildly successful. Sure, they could have done what everyone expected them to do. And that would have sufficed. But recognizing the value of a good idea, even when everyone else doesn’t, is a hard road to follow. You’re stamped with a lot of nasty labels until you prove your detractors wrong. The flip side is that, sometimes, unpopular decisions are just bad decisions. But that’s what makes it interesting.

Everyone has the right to their own opinions and ideas. In a professional setting, they have the right to express those ideas, or at least should be able to express them without fear of reprisal. But who makes the final call? There always seems to be some confusion surrounding opinions.

In the mind of a creative professional, there is a real separation between professional creative evaluation and personal opinion. Having an opinion does not qualify your average person for anything more than having an opinion. A creative director’s opinion reflects years of training. Sometimes it’s based on intuition, other times it’s easier to explain. They push to understand both failures and successes. This becomes the basis of a trained professional’s decision. A personal opinion is about what you like; a professional opinion is about what an audience will like. Sometimes it’s the same, other times it isn’t.

Creative evaluation does not come from having an idea or two. It’s about having thousands of ideas, and executing hundreds of them over years. A creative professional at an advanced level knows how to prioritize, evaluate and judge what is better. The process of raising an idea can sometimes be anything but lucid. It’s tricky to know when you’ve arrived at the right solution, but experience teaches you judgment. And that judgment is what gives meaning to an idea.

What I Learned From 9 Years of Advertising

I never wanted to work in advertising. I grew up pressing the mute button during commercials. When the music stopped on the radio, I switched channels. And when the DVR came out, I was first in line to get one. I didn’t know much about advertising, or even care, it just annoyed me. That’s not to say I don’t believe it works. But inherently, I went out of my way to tune it out.

I went to college to learn how to be a good artist and designer, so that’s all I focused on. I deeply appreciate good design and I love to create things. The goal was to be a professional artist, although I had trouble nailing down an exact direction.

After working at a failing dot-com, I somehow landed at an advertising agency doing both design and development. I had a lot of ideas about design and what it meant, but I quickly found out how much I didn’t know about business and marketing, let alone advertising.

I taught myself how to write code, so I figured why not get some books on marketing and learn about this other world I was then a part of. All along, I was surrounded by smart people doing interesting work, so it was easy to absorb.

I kept learning by reading book after book. I wasn’t producing any traditional advertising, but the culture, the creative process, and my creative director made each day a lesson. I learned about branding, psychographics, and of course the big idea. To the initiated, the big idea is the guiding concept that becomes the hub of all strategies and tactical executions. Most importantly advertising teaches you how to create a story that people will listen to.

Any good communication is a story. It doesn’t matter if you are talking to friends, giving a presentation, or creating a 30 second spot on TV. It’s all about story telling. Dan Roam, the author of The Back of the Napkin, talks about how the best story wins. This means that when you are in a competitive situation, the person who can tell the better story will do more to engage and persuade an audience than the other guy. It’s not a new idea by any means, but it’s very well stated.

The old Coke commercial with Mean Joe Green, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc0izCGKxP8, is a prefect example of advertising story telling at its best. It’s the story of opposites having something in common. Joe Green is a mean large black man. The kid is an innocent small white boy. Yet, these two have a common interest and they make a connection. Coke wants to appeal to everyone and that story delivers the message is a way a room full of marketing executives could never imagine. It’s genius.

The day to day business of advertising when it’s good is about having a creative dialog with intelligent people who will synergistically build an idea that creates deep meaning in the mind of a consumer. It’s rewarding when you have something that not only solves a business need, but is artistically brilliant. And it’s exhilarating when your work is nationally recognized. Showing up to work in shorts and sandals to talk about possibilities and ideas on top of getting paid a great salary is a dream job. But, there’s a dark side to it.

There are the prima donnas. These people are the worst. Everything in the world exists to do nothing more than reaffirm their greatness. Then you have the award grubbing creative directors. These people reject advertising work before clients can respond to it base on the fact that it won’t win an ADDY. Doesn’t matter if the work is what the client wanted, dead on target for the consumer, and solves a business problem. Bad management is rampant too. Temperamental and untrained, many people who run the show have no idea how to treat another human being let alone manage a team. The worst of it is the number of hours you work including weekends and holidays. They all lie to their employees about how a work life balance is important. 10PM Friday night meetings, 6:30AM calls to London on Sunday, and 60-75 hour work weeks were my reality.

I sometimes complain about advertising and the people who live in that world, but I really have learned so much from them. I understand what they do and I actually watch commercials if they are done well. Their culture of ideas is wrought with highs and lows. You have to be emotionally tough. I will always appreciate how difficult the job is. Hopefully, I have learned how to tell a good story.

Cutting the Space, Site Design

Way back when I was in art school my sculpture teacher told us the most uninteresting shape (sculpturally) was that of the Hershey’s Kiss. It’s flat and wide on bottom and skinny on top, like a pile of dirt or a pile of (insert your own word). As a shape, it is safe and predictable with little visual interest. It does exactly what gravity wants it to do and attempts nothing else. So that shape is boring because as a structure it takes the path of least resistance in the environment it was formed in.

As art students we are directed to ask questions that defy natural conventions to create the unexpected. So you begin taking heavy shapes and propping them up on skinny legs to see how an ordinary form can have energy and a new meaning. In our world today we see so much of this in architecture and consumer goods that it’s fairly commonplace, but structurally defying gravity is something learned. And applying it in today’s world makes things more interesting.

Being a digital creative, I can draw parallels to these lessons and Web site design. The first thing to know is that both disciplines have rules. With Web site design, usability grounds what you can do. Ignore usability and no one accomplishes what they came for on your site. Irritating users will cause a site to fail.

With sculpture, gravity grounds (literally) what you can do. You can’t place a two ton object on top of a paper cup. Gravity wins that game. Sometime you can fake the look of something incredible, but it is done with a lot of careful engineering and there are real limits.

Once you understand the constraints, you can then think about design. If the most uninteresting shape in sculpture looks like a Hershey’s Kiss, the most uninteresting shape in Web site design is a long rectangle. That’s the shape of your computer monitor. So mimicking that shape with an interface design is simply applying the most conventional approach.

For me the difference is seeing your screen as a picture plane verses seeing your screen as one giant frame. Information design is built on grid to make things easily scanned, but it doesn’t mean everything has to feel like it’s in a box, even if it is.

My remedy is to think about how to cut the space. It’s sculptural in essence. I am looking at what I can take away from that rectangle to make it not look like a rectangle. And the nature of the un-rectangleness depends on the brand. Each brand necessitates its own look and feel so I work toward cutting away what isn’t in the nature of that brand.

In 2004, while working on an entertainment magazine site, I used some fun curves to break up the space:

About 3 years ago, the logo for Mixaroo inspired the look of the primary content area being outlined with the shape of an “X”:

And most recently the Rawlings redesign took on an atmospheric ballpark look and feel: